Marx and Jesus: The Trouble with Prophets

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Readings for 4th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Jer. 1: 4-5, 17-19; Ps. 71: 1-6, 15-17; I Cor. 12: 31-13; Lk. 4: 21-30 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/020313.cfm

I remember when my ideas about prophecy changed – when I really began to understand the term’s implications. I was a graduate student in Rome – already a priest – and completing my doctoral studies at the Academia Alfonsiana on the Via Merulana there in the “Holy City.” I was taking a class in I’ve forgotten what. But my professor (a German Redemptorist as I recall) got my attention during one of his lectures by referring to Karl Marx as “the last of the great Jewish prophets.” That was in 1970 at the height of the Cold War, and I had been reading Marx and about the then-flourishing Marxist-Christian dialog. I realized that my professor was right.

Marx of course was a Jew like Jesus, and Jeremiah who are centralized in today’s liturgy of the word. Like them, Marx was totally absorbed by questions of social justice for the poor and exploited. He was pretty much penniless, like most prophets, and spent his time thinking, writing, speaking, and organizing workers against exploitive employers. He was also highly critical of organized religion and its idols.

Marx’s insight (shared with the biblical prophets) was to realize that both Judaism and Christianity worshipped idols more often than the God of Israel. And by that he meant “gods” who not only justified an oppressive status quo, but who anesthetized the workers and unemployed to the fact that they were indeed oppressed by the capitalist system. Marx called such idols “the gods of heaven.”

We’re all familiar with what he meant. These idols are worshipped each Sunday – usually from 11:00 to 12:00 in what a theologian friend of mine used to call the “be kind to God hour.” You can encounter the “gods of heaven” any day at any hour on Cable television’s Channel 3 or in most Catholic Churches any Sunday morning. “God” there is concerned with correct worship, with bows, genuflections, and with correct terms such as “consubstantial,” “chalice,” “with thy spirit,” “under my roof” and so on. The stories or mythology upholding such idols have to do with “Jesus as your personal savior,” with “going to heaven,” and with avoiding hell.

Marx was also critical of what he called the “gods of earth.” They’re what people worship all those days and hours when they’re not in church. They include Capitalism, “America,” Nationalism, National Defense, Homeland Security, the Military, Money, and Profit. The issues of this God focus on sexuality: contraception, abortion, and same-sex marriage. This God is a War God – always on the side of “America.” He’s celebrated in songs like “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Proud to Be an American.” He is the protector of “religious freedom” understood as privileging Christianity over other faiths while preserving tax exemptions worth billions each year. He blesses the bishops’ “Fortnight for Freedom” concerned as it is with protecting such benefits.

Marx’s prophetic work made him extremely popular with working classes. It was not uncommon for a worker to request that he be buried with a copy of “The Communist Manifesto” placed on his chest.

At the same time, Marx was vilified as the devil himself by factory owners, businessmen, bankers, and the professors and politicians representing their interests. Defenseless against such “education,” most of us have accepted such defamation of this last of the great Jewish prophets.

You see, that’s the trouble with prophets like Marx, Jesus and Jeremiah. They have to take on the “powers and principalities” of their cultures. They must swim against the torrential stream of public opinion.

In today’s first reading, Jeremiah is informed of his lot. But he must “man-up,” he’s told. He must steel himself to confront the “whole land,” along with kings and princes, priests and people. All of these, he’s warned, will fight against him. Nevertheless, God will make of Jeremiah a ‘fortified city,” a “pillar of iron,” and a “wall of brass.”

I suppose God followed through on those promises. But that didn’t prevent Jeremiah from being imprisoned, tortured, and left for dead.

Of course, the same thing happened to Jesus from the beginning to the end of his public ministry. He was vilified, demonized (literally!) and defamed.

That process begins for Jesus in today’s selection from Chapter 4 of Luke’s gospel. As we saw last week, he returns to his hometown of Nazareth and criticizes his neighbors’ narrow nationalism. In today’s episode his neighbors try to kill him. Later on, of course, Jesus goes more public. Like Jeremiah, he takes on his nation’s priests and scribes, princes and king. Ultimately his words and deeds threaten the Roman Empire itself which classifies him as a terrorist. Together those powers and principalities (national and international) not only defame Jesus the way Jeremiah and Marx were defamed; they actually kill him just as so many prophets have been killed from John the Baptist and Paul to Martin Luther King and Gandhi.

All of them – Jesus, Jeremiah, Gandhi, King, Paul and Marx – followed the same “prophetic script” whose inevitable directive prescribes that no prophet is accepted in her or his native place. It’s easy to see why. It’s because their “native place” bears the brunt of their prophetic words.

Meanwhile, it’s easier for outsiders to recognize prophets. The “outsiders” who concerned Jesus were the uneducated, poor, and unclean. However, even those seem to turn against him this morning. It’s unlikely that there were any rich or powerful resident in Nazareth – a place scripture scholar Ched Myers describes as “Nowheresville.”

Few of us are rich and powerful. Yet we’ve been schooled by those entities to reject prophets who speak in our name and defend our interests – those belonging to our “native land” to use the words of this morning’s gospel. It’s as though we’re looking at reality in that “darkened mirror” Paul wrote about in today’s excerpt from his letter to Corinth. The darkened mirror not only turns things backward, but it’s smudged with the fingerprints and dirt of ignorant and/or perverse propagandists.

The trouble – the trouble with prophets – is that most of us have bought into all that anti-prophet propaganda. So we hate Karl Marx without realizing that he’s on our side and speaks for us. We honor the Martin Luther King who has been reduced to a “dreamer,” but not the MLK who described the United States as the most violent and destructive country in the world. We don’t remember the King who was slandered as a communist and encouraged to commit suicide by the FBI and the COINTELPRO program.

We’re willing to stand by while Wikileaks journalist Julian Assange is persecuted by the governments of Great Britain and the United States. We presume that Bradley Manning is guilty of treason because our government, (despite its record of lies and heinous crimes) says so. We wonder what all the fuss is about Aaron Swartz.

These are the prophets of our time who, like Jesus, do not find a sympathetic hearing in their native place. It might be time to embrace them as our own and see what difference that makes in the way we look at the world and our country. The examples of Jeremiah, Jesus, and Paul — and the hopes of the world’s poor and victims of U.S. wars — beg us to do so.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 40 years. Three grown children. Four grandchildren.

4 thoughts on “Marx and Jesus: The Trouble with Prophets”

  1. Good article on prophets, Mike. To those mentioned can be added the names of Daniel Berrigan, Thomas Merton (especially in his anti war writings), Oscar Wilde, Harvey Milk and many others. And what a prophetic and catalytic young man was Aaron Swartz.

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  2. Bravo Mike! If you keep on like this you may perform a miracle and get me back in church. Not The Church, but your church, where I would feel comfortable seeking Christ’s Truth with others, rather than the mind numbing ritualism on offer at most churches.

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  3. There is an additional tragedy about prophets in addition to the fact that we either demonize or ignore them. We pervert their message with terrible consequences. The perversion of the original message Moses mediated to the Hebrews gave us the annihilation of whole communities, if the Torah and the Judges are to be believed. The perversion of Jesus’ message gave us the slaughter of Jews, Moors, native Americans and dissenting Christians, and a residual caste system that co-opts the Gospel and brooks no dissent. The perversion of Marx gave us Stalin, Pol Pot, Mao, Cousescou, et al. It’s almost as if the divine call to justice, mercy and compassion has a built-in self-destruct mechanism.
    I think it was Peguy who said, “God writes straight with crooked lines.” Sometimes I think God is using mirror writing of a type that is ultimately indecipherable to us…Paul’s “mirror” on steroids, the reverse side of the tapestry, which will ultimately prove unintelligible on either side. Pardon the cynicism, but I was just rejoicing that Mahoney, however belatedly, has been barred from ministry only to learn from folks far less naive than I, that this move probably contains a major act of revenge by the Opus Dei gang against the cardinal’s liberal record on social issues.

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